It’s a tricky thing for me to review Martha Marcy May Marlene, and it’s made trickier by the fact that I’m reviewing it for this site. It’s not a film for everyone, though I would certainly recommend it to many people. It’s also not a horror film, but I would certainly recommend it to many horror fans (especially if you respond to paranoia, suspense or creeping dread). First time writer/director Sean Durkin has crafted a film that will likely make you grapple with your own feelings of uncertainty and the fear of where you do and don’t belong (if anywhere). To some extent it’s about the parts inside of you that are begging to be advocated for but are shut down, whether it be by you or someone else.
Martha Marcy May Marlene starts out with a frightened Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), trying to appear casual, clutching her bag and setting out across the road and up a lush embankment. We hear a voice call after her and see someone give chase. As with every other scene in the movie it’s just what it needs to be, doling out the exact right amount of information at the exact right pitch. Seconds later there is a quick exchange in a diner between Martha and Watts (Brady Corbet), a man who has caught up with her. It’s a tense moment that ends in a perfectly unexpected way. The result is that you’re now in her shoes, wondering why what just happened was allowed to happen and wondering when it will be taken away.
Soon, Martha is picked up by her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and taken to the Connecticut vacation home Lucy shares with her new husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), whom Martha is meeting for the first time. From here the film oscillates between current events at the vacation home and the recent past at the cult compound from which Martha has fled. The way in which Martha Marcy May Marlene handles the balancing act of which information to impart from each time period and where to place it is integral its success and frankly, I’m shocked to see that kind of discipline and wisdom out of Durkin on his first feature outing. Many directors spend half their career learning this kind of economy and I’m truly excited to see where he goes next.
Elizabeth Olsen is, as you may have heard, astonishingly good. In one setting alone Martha would be an incredibly complex character, but as we bounce back between the cult and the vacation home we see the ways in which how she can fit only partially into one environment directly impact her ability to fit completely into the other, and vice versa. She is too smart and strong to stay with Patrick (John Hawkes) and his disciples, and because of them she is too damaged to live comfortably with Lucy and Ted (and likely the rest of society). Her exploited worldliness and sexuality are at constant battle with her stunted naiveté, and the results are both endearing (there are couple of moments where she is hilariously insightful) and frightening.
John Hawkes is also pretty much perfect as Patrick. Wiry and intense, his menace is easily telegraphed to the audience but is filtered through such an intricate web of charismatic homespun platitudes and self-aggrandizing humility that you can see what these girls see in him. He’s the kind of guy who makes total sense until you actually listen to what he’s saying, which obviously not the strong suit of the people he preys upon. In one of the film’s crucial moments, Patrick serenades ‘Marcy May’ with a song in front of the other members of the cult. It’s a surprisingly beautiful melody but the lyrics straddle an uncomfortable line between meaningless and objectifying. It doesn’t matter, it’s about her in some way, and it’s the deficit of that kind of attention that drove her to be with these weirdos in the catskills in the first place. It’s one of the few moments of gratification Martha has in the film, and it’s the toxic appeal of this cult in a nutshell.
Sarah Paulson is also quite good and her moments alone with Olsen ring especially true. Lucy has been playing the role of the stern, older sister for years and it’s upsetting to watch her flirt with the idea of being able to ease up on that dynamic only to learn that she can never escape from it. In fact, she pretty much has to double up and become the mother now (a role she wants to fill but not like this). You can sense a real yearning in both Lucy and Martha for an equality in their bond, but that’s something they both gave up on in their own way a long time ago.
If anyone’s character in the film gets short shrift, it’s Hugh Dancy’s Ted. It feels like there’s just a bit connective tissue missing from his arc that maybe an extra scene or two could have smoothed out. There’s nothing glaringly off, and it’s a disconnect that only stands out because of the embarrassment of riches that surround it.
As Martha’s memories of he compound grow more intense (and in one instance, shockingly violent) so do her experiences at ‘home’. Without ever raising its voice to a yell the film becomes unrelentingly intense. You’re constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop and – like that early scene in the diner – wondering along with Martha when it will all be taken away. The last shot in particular may have you running a couple of scenarios through your head on the way home from the theater. At least until you realize that the essential outcome for each of them is, terrifyingly enough, the same.
I imagine the people that will reject this film will do so with the reasoning that it “is too slow”. My response would be to suggest that, as with any film this assured, their mistake was to not place enough trust in it from the outset. As human beings we seek out and put our faith in capable, assured partners. As filmgoers we should give ourselves the gift of seeking out and putting our faith in capable, assured filmmakers. After the (mostly) endless series of flashy one night stands that was this summer, it’s time that we settle down into something more human and rewarding. Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene is both of those things.